Meet Colleen Rusnak, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s graduate assistant (GA) for the 2020-2021 academic year. In this post, Colleen shares with interviewer Jacqueline Ackerman (WPI’s associate director of research) about her experience as a GA during an unusual year!
Share a little bit about your background. Where are you from, and what led you to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s M.A. program?
Colleen Rusnak (CR): I am from Carmel, Indiana. After receiving my undergraduate degree from Indiana University—Bloomington, I entered the master’s in counseling program at IUPUI. While completing my master’s I began working at IUPUI in advising and career counseling. After working for several years in this area of academia I started the graduate certificate in philanthropic studies. After gaining experience in higher education and working with my colleagues in development I felt that philanthropy was a strong fit for myself as a career.
I have always enjoyed volunteering and been active in giving circles outside of work. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI)’s research and work was a strong fit for the direction I want to pursue in philanthropy. I was extremely pleased to complete a graduate assistantship with WPI, and I loved the experience.
What was your experience like as a graduate assistant for the Women’s Philanthropy Institute? What sort of work did you do?
CR: WPI is an amazing organization to work for and the research and work produced by the institute helps fundraisers and nonprofits all over the world. I enjoyed every aspect of my assistantship and the WPI team was excellent to work with. I worked with Jeannie Sager, director of WPI, on developing an annual giving plan for WPI and assisting her with the course she taught for The Fund Raising School. Jeannie has been an excellent mentor and has helped guide me on my path to a career in philanthropy.
I also assisted with research and sourcing articles on women’s philanthropy with Tessa Skidmore and Jacquie Ackerman. This was eye-opening for me to learn more about research and as a development professional how to speak to donors and promote research done by the university.
Lastly, there is a huge emphasis on writing in the world of philanthropy that I wasn’t aware of. Many of my projects, including a blog post for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s blog helped me to gain professional writing skills.
This past academic year was a weird year to be a GA. How did COVID affect your GA ship? What was it like to work and take classes remotely?
CR: COVID has definitely impacted the world of work and school. However, as a professional that went back to school full-time this past year it has actually worked very well. I did miss the in-person interactions, but I had more time for classes and work. The flexibility of online classes and working remotely gave me a chance to build my schedule that worked best for me to be my most productive self.
During the spring I was able to take four classes and complete another part-time internship all while taking care of a new puppy! I was only able to do all of this because of remote work so that is a silver lining of the pandemic, although I am so happy to see the decline in COVID and the economy making a recovery.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned as part of WPI’s team?
CR: In regard to fundraising, I learned how to work with an existing donor base and how important stewardship is when working with donors. WPI needed an annual giving plan to support the WPI director’s role that focuses on major gifts. I learned how the IU Foundation plays a role when fundraising with a large university system. Also, I learned how a department like WPI works with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s fundraising team. It was truly unique to learn from experts in fundraising from all areas of the university.
Jacquie and Tessa were able to show me insights into the world of research and how fundraisers connect with the research team. Also, I took the gender and philanthropy course with Professor Deb Mesch, which was helpful for me to learn more about translating research into practice as a fundraising professional.
What’s next for you? How will you use what you learned about women’s philanthropy moving forward?
CR: I still have one more class I am taking this summer and I am looking for positions in development and fundraising. WPI has shown me insights into the world of gender and giving and I think raising funds for an organization that promotes women’s and girls’ causes would be an amazing opportunity.
Do you have any advice for future GAs about how to take advantage of their time with their host organization, or how to balance their time working at their assistantship with their schoolwork?
CR: The best advice I can give future GAs is to ask questions about everyone’s career path that you work with. How did they get into the field and what do they recommend for new professionals to do when entering the field? Also, just say yes to everything and gain as much experience as possible.
This is one time in your professional career where learning is the priority. Build professional relationships and add to your professional network. This is especially important for women to build their professional network early and to help other women build their networks as well.
Anything else you’d like to share about your experience as a GA or your understanding of WPI and women’s philanthropy that the other questions didn’t let you cover? Any thoughts welcome here!
CR: I really enjoyed working for WPI and being a part of the team. WPI has a small team, and they are very close, but I felt that I was welcomed right away to the team. Everyone is professional and passionate about the work they do for WPI and building and promoting the institute. I am truly going to miss working for WPI, but I am excited for the next GA to have this wonderful experience.